How Hard to Push

James M. Rohner | October 2017


    There is a McDonald’s commercial that has received heavy airplay over the past year. A teenage employee bursts into the restaurant clutching a letter from a college admissions office. The manager snatches the letter away and calls the rest of the staff over. As the letter is read, it becomes clear that the teenager has earned a spot at the college. The restaurant kitchen erupts in applause.
    I have seen this commercial a hundred times, and it always moves me. I often think about what this moment will be like for my stepson, Eliott, when he gets his first acceptance a decade from now. I am guessing the news will not come by snail mail in 2028. On weeknights, as we sometimes slog through his library reading books for the week, I keep in mind the distant shore where we are heading.
    At age 7, he has only the vaguest notion of college life, but I have begun a low-key effort to make higher education seem like a given. We spent many afternoons last winter at Northwestern watching Chris Collins and the Wildcats earn their first-ever trip to the NCAA tournament. The nuances of the game were lost on him as we spent precious minutes chasing down the elusive cotton candy man. After one game, he asked, “Can we live here?” I told him, “Someday, if you work very hard, you can go to school here like all of these big kids.” He probably just wanted a bunk bed near the concession stand, but I went home smiling that day. This fall we are adding lunches near campus and NU football games to the agenda. The subliminal advertising has begun.
    On this academic journey, I face a dilemma common to all parents – how hard to push him to succeed. We live in a district where the vast majority of students attend college. For most, it is not even a question. That certainty about college comes with inevitable academic pressure. I have seen plenty of students zip through school with all of the joy of a tax preparer. I don’t want my son to feel like he has to earn perfect grades. I want him to find a true love of learning and to reach for the upper levels of his abilities.
    We are still working on this love of learning. It is disconcerting to see how much homework already is given in second grade. With his reading assignments, I sometimes feel like a conductor, deciding when to prod and when to pull back. I choose between stopping to point out a mistake and pressing ahead. The pupil frequently objects. “Why do I have to read all the words?” The road to the future is long and has many detours.
    One of my broader goals is to create an environment where learning is fun and where mistakes are tolerated. An educator who lives by this approach is Mitch Bahr, our October interview subject. Bahr, the 2016 California Teacher of the Year, inherited a demoralized program 15 years ago, and promised his students that he would never put them in the position of feeling embarrassed as musicians. In his view, changing the culture of the program and emphasizing the social aspects of music were just as important as improved playing. To bolster his instrumentation, he showed a willingness to recruit high school students with strong motivation and limited musical experience. “Few high school students know anything about physics, but this doesn’t stop them from signing up for physics class.” I don’t think Eliott can commute to California to play in Mitch Bahr’s band, but I can’t wait for him to play for a director with the same spirit and creativity.